Retrospective: David Lynch Part One: From Painter to Director by Donald McCarthy

David Lynch is best known as a director but his original dream was to become a painter. You can see it in his first film, Six Figures Getting Sick, which is more akin to watching moving paintings than a live action film. It’s also a great representation of a common Lynch theme: the feeling of being trapped. If you didn’t make it to the end of the film (I understand) then allow me to clue you in: the men don’t stop throwing up. They’re caught in a loop in which they constantly vomit, pause, and then vomit again. There’s no escape for these guys. It’s a cynical vision—perhaps Lynch’s most cynical film—but it’s interesting to see this theme, so central to his voice, present in his work from the start.

A painting is a person or landscape trapped. There’s no change, it’s stuck. When you see a movie, you expect the lead character to change, usually going from dissatisfied to satisfied, but Lynch doesn’t always think that way (sometimes he will, as in Blue Velvet). There’s no change in Six Figures Getting Sick, just as there’s no change in the paintings he crafted.

The Alphabet came in 1968, after Six Figures Getting Sick, and we already see a change in Lynch’s approach. The painting quality remains but we now get live action with a girl played by Lynch’s then wife (there are going to be a lot of those), Peggy. She’s having a nightmare about learning the alphabet. It’s an odd idea, but here change is forced upon her and she’s resistant to it, vomiting blood at the end (don’t worry, the vomiting does stop this time), once the alphabet has been forced into her.

Curiously, while watching this film an event from my past came to mind, an event that I hadn’t thought about in years, possibly not since it happened. In kindergarten, my teacher held me back one day, as she’d been doing with all students over the past week, so she could make sure I knew the alphabet. I cried hysterically. I didn’t understand why I had to stay late, assumed I’d done something wrong, and wanted to get the hell out of there as soon as possible. When you’re young, there’s something unsettling and confusing about knowledge. Why am I learning this? What’s so special about it? Is this about me? Why are you forcing all of this on me?

There’s no story to The Alphabet but it conveys deep emotion. Lynch is getting to the heart of a child’s fear of growing up and learning. That ability to hit on buried emotions is what makes Lynch such a powerful director. For Lynch, emotion comes before everything else. If he has a choice between a straight narrative or a roundabout story that evokes feelings he will always go with the latter. This gives his films a viewpoint that most don’t have.

That’s not to say that everything Lynch does works. There are a number of Lynch’s short films that make me throw my hands up in the air and go, “What the hell was that?” His feature length film, Wild at Heart, did the same to me. But because Lynch so enjoys trying out new ideas and approaches, it doesn’t bother me when he stumbles as much as it would when, say, Martin Scorsese puts out a bummer. Lynch is always trying something new and with that comes the very real possibility of failure.

He does start to branch out into a more coherent narrative with his thirty minute film The Grandmother, where he examines familial dysfunction while still going back to the idea of a child in trouble that he had in The Alphabet. Lynch does have a tendency to revisit themes yet his films are so unique that none of them feel like they’re going over the same ground again. Specific imagery also links Lynch’s films such as the close up of the mouth in The Alphabet and the close up of the monkey saying “Judy” in Fire Walk With Me. As we go further, we’ll see more of this, especially with Mulholland Drive

His short films are almost like thematic trailers for his first feature length movie EraserheadThe Grandmother’s dysfunctional family is a precursor to the two bizarre families that we’ll see in Eraserhead. However, I’m not sure that anyone who watched Lynch’s short films would be prepared for Eraserhead. Odd, experimental short films are not rare for new directors. It allows them to discover what film can and cannot do and it allows them to test out all sorts of styles. Eraserheaddoes all this and more at feature length.

Eraserhead is a perfect 1970s film, a time when experimental films could reach relatively wide audiences, something that’s not as easy to do now (although we are seeing more independent films so perhaps the time of oddities reaching the outer edge of the mainstream will come again). I’m sure many an artsy person brought a date to this film only to have their date turn on them by the end asking, “HOW CAN YOU POSSIBLY ENJOY THIS?!” Yeah, Eraserhead is not a film for everyon. There are so many techniques at work, so many striking images, and such a unique performance at its center that no one will forget seeing it—even if they dislike the film.

Eraserhead took Lynch five years to make which in itself makes it interesting considering he was not a known quantity at the time. It’s quite the feat that he managed to finish the film. If you watch the credits you’ll see that Lynch is credited as director, writer, producer, and editor. This film is an injection of Lynch. It makes no compromises whatsoever and there’s nothing too dark, too fucked up for the film. Lynch’s lack of censoring himself is to be applauded, especially gutsy for a beginning filmmaker. He does not seem at all concerned about marketability.

Not that we end up with a perfect film because of this approach. Many of Lynch’s attributes are on display, but so are his flaws. Pacing has always been a rough spot for Lynch and that’s apparent in the opening of the film, where we follow a sperm-like image leave Jack Nance’s mouth and move around what could be a rock before seeing a man with an, uh, “distinctive” face pulling levers. It’s long, vague, and is repeated at the end to limited effect. Lynch’s critics call him weird for weird’s sake and scenes like this are why that label sticks. A similar problem comes near the end of the film when Jack Nance’s character, Henry, dreams of his head popping off and ending up in an eraser factory. There’s a lot of imagery and theme packed into this segment but it goes on longer than it should, testing the viewer’s patience.

Unsurprisingly, Eraserhead wasn’t supposed to be as long as the eighty-nine minutes it ended up as. Lynch wanted to do a forty-five minute film but the AFI wanted it to be longer. During the five years it took Lynch to film it, the texture of the film undoubtedly evolved. At one point, Lynch even started sleeping on set every night. Greg Olson’s wonderful biography on Lynch, Beautiful Dark, touches on just how depressed Lynch was at the time, how he had what he wanted but wasn’t happy. This seeped more and more into the film.

Right from the start of the film we see Henry as a diminutive figure. One of the film’s earliest images is of Henry walking past a building with massive windows, making him look miniscule by comparison. The scenes following Henry as he walks are phenomenal because they linger and show us how dreary his existence is. Other films would cover this in ten seconds with a few quick shots (Baz Luhrmann would cover it in one thousand shots but still keep it within ten seconds) but Lynch allows us to be immersed in the world. At one point we see from, what feels like, Henry’s point of view. This is a disconcerting viewpoint because we’re now suddenly feeling as if we’re actually there, in this strange yet real place. There’s no character on screen for us to identify with. It’s just us. Lynch will return to this technique time and again, always to strong effect.

Henry’s arrival and subsequent dinner at his girlfriend’s house is perhaps the most striking scene in the movie for me. I think this segment is Lynch at his finest and we see a lot of ideas and imagery that he’ll go back to in future works. The dinner sequence is a perfect example of Lynch’s use of emotion. Mary X, the oddly named girlfriend of Henry, has Henry over for dinner. During that dinner Henry is informed that Mary had a baby and it’s his. Henry and Mary will need to be married as soon as possible. That Henry now has to take care of a baby is the catalyst for the rest of the film yet this new development is far from the most engaging part of the scene. It’s the atmosphere that keeps us engaged. Lynch captures what it feels like to be with a family other than our own and to realize the family is profoundly warped and unhealthy. To do so, Lynch goes to extremes. He has no choice since we’ve seen unhealthy families over and over again in film so Lynch needs to do something new. You’ll notice that there’s very little family interaction. Most of the family members talk to Henry but not each other.

When they do interact, it’s in an off-putting way. When Henry first sits down, Mary begins to have a seizure so her mother grabs her and begins to comb her hair. This calms Mary down. Mary’s father appears with a rant about the current state of the city they live in and both Mary and her mother implore him to stop. The strained tone in their voice is all too real and it leaves us cringing, knowing that the father’s ranting has ended badly for the family in the past. At the table, the mother has an orgasmic seizure which is mostly ignored by everyone else. Mary’s father merely stares at Henry with an unmoving smile plastered on his face instead of seeing what’s wrong with his wife. We get the impression that this course of events has happened before.

We’ve all been in homes where we see another family’s dynamics and become uncomfortable. Lynch makes us feel that, makes us examine just what it is that can make a family so hostile and lifeless. Again, like the subjects of Lynch’s short films, Henry (and in turn the viewer) is trapped. The family is going through a cycle, miserable yet either unwilling or unable to break out of it. We get a brief look at Mary’s grandmother who is catatonic. Mary’s mother stuffs a cigarette in her mouth and lights it for her before going back to cooking. There’s no verbal interaction.

Eraserhead is extraordinarily cynical towards family life. It tells us that there’s no loyalty between family members but instead an exhausted tolerance. There’s certainly no such thing as empathy. It’s not a surprise that Mary is hysterical now that she has a baby with Henry; she already knows how hellish family life is and now she has her own with a future husband she doesn’t seem to be particularly fond of. While the film doesn’t focus much on Mary, we can see her point of view just by examining her own family’s dynamics. When she leaves Henry and the baby later in the film it seems like a nasty move, and perhaps it is, but it’s an understandable one when you consider her home life.

We see yet another nasty instance of the family’s bizarreness when Mary’s mother calls Henry away from dinner and demands to know from him whether or not he had “sexual intercourse” and promises him that it will get very uncomfortable if he doesn’t answer. Henry doesn’t so the mother begins to kiss him. You can read this as the mother lusting for Henry, but I think Lynch is taking her line about making him uncomfortable in a very literal way. She is making him physically uncomfortable and, because it seems wrong to us, it makes us uncomfortable as well. As with the other scenes in this sequence, this makes Henry’s emotions visual. At this point, Mary utters the line, regarding the baby, “They’re not even sure it is a baby!” This is the only point in the film where a character verbalizes that the child who we are led to believe came from Mary and Henry is perhaps not a normal baby—and, boy, that sure is the case.

I’m not sure that anything can fully prepare the audience for its first look at the baby. There’s been much controversy over just how Lynch created the little freak, some going so far as to say it’s an aborted cow fetus. Me? I think he just made it from random supplies. We know Lynch is a master painter and is more than able to play around with designs so it’d be no surprise to me if he made the baby out of random parts. However he did it, the stunning effect of it cannot be denied. The baby is both disgusting and sad. The cries it emits sound almost like its way of talking. Its little head movements are so similar to a baby’s but also completely different. At first glance the baby appears to be wrapped in a blanket but on closer inspection we see that it’s wrapped in bandages. When Mary tries to feed it, the baby becomes difficult, moving its head side to side, refusing to allow food in; Mary has to force the baby’s mouth open. Unsurprisingly, she has a breakdown and flees, leaving Henry with the baby.

Henry is an odd protagonist as, for much of the film, he is almost completely inactive. Events happen to him; he doesn’t make events happen. When Mary leaves he protests but not much and gives up fairly quickly. Henry isn’t much of a fighter. The only original action Henry does for much of the film is imagine a woman in the radiator, a woman that he would be attracted to as opposed to the increasingly impatient Mary or the gorgeous yet potentially dangerous woman across the hall. The woman in the radiator is an odd character, not least because her cheeks are puffed out in a very pronounced fashion. Henry is somewhat obsessed with her, constantly looking down to the radiator which is where her stage is. She performs the song “In Heaven,” a creepy yet beautiful song which promises that in heaven everything is fine. The unsung is that here on Earth everything is decidedly not fine. It’s more than possible that Henry views the world inside the radiator as a type of heaven.

At the end of the film the woman in the radiator runs to embrace him as he stands in a room filled with white. Is he in some sort of heaven? Or, at least, imagining that he is? Either way, it implies that death is Henry’s only possible escape from his life. Henry’s actions imply that he believes that only way out of his life is two deaths: the baby’s and his own (possibly a figurative death but possibly not). It’s interesting that an inactive character’s first dramatic action would be to kill his child. The film certainly realizes this as the sequence after the murder is harrowing, to say the least. There’s not necessarily logic to what we see and I’m not convinced that we’re expected to understand everything that Henry witnesses. When the baby’s head is attached to its body by what looks like an extraordinarily long umbilical cord I don’t think Lynch has a specific message that he is trying to relate. He is just putting forth another image that we associate with babies and twisting it to make it vulgar. The multiple floating baby heads that Henry sees (hallucinates?) appear more like a manifestation of his guilt and representative of the enormity of his actions. Whether any of this actually happened or not is irrelevant.

The scene is Lynch at his best—expressing complicated feelings through imagery alone. Watching it on my own, in the dark, I was horrified, happy, and saddened at the death of the baby. All of these emotions are played out on screen in a way that most directors cannot do. It’s very noteworthy that Lynch often doesn’t need dialogue, or even a person, for us to be affected. I’ve had family and friends watch Lynch who haven’t ended up liking his work but none could deny the power of certain sequences in his film. No one can file and forget a David Lynch film, and we see that right in his first feature.

Part of Eraserhead’s impact comes from how small the setting is. Henry’s apartment is miniscule and Mary’s family’s house is similarly tiny. No matter what worlds are inside the radiator, it’s still a small radiator. Henry can pretend that endless worlds exist within it but what’s holding it together is a small radiator in a suffocating apartment. Rarely does Lynch let up on making the audience feel like they’re trapped.

The two times Lynch does let up, the opening minute and the scenes in the eraser factory that I mentioned before, are the two moments when the film slips up, killing the pacing. The eraser factory scene could act as a hilarious dig at capitalism but the fact that it’s a dream within a dream makes it muddled and feel too inconsequential, leaving us to wonder if it matters and what relation, if any, this has with Henry’s main conflict. Lynch best manages to keep us enthralled when he keeps the story’s focus tight.

Lynch has mentioned multiple times that he’s a fan of the works of Franz Kafka and I think Eraserhead is his most Kafkaesque film, mixing the normal with the absurd, sadness with humor, dullness with violence. Like Kafka, Lynch’s characters’ oddness makes them more real than the caricatures or very familiar characters that appear in most stories. I think it’s easy to draw a connection to the grotesque and sadness of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Eraserhead’s similar qualities. Both pieces of work are also interested in the way a family reacts to a family member that is perceived as monstrous. Like the insect in Kafka’s story, the baby in Eraserhead never does anything particularly evil. It mostly just moans but that alone brings down Henry and Mary, likely because they were miserable in all other areas of their lives and the baby acted as a daily reminder of their misery.

Upon release, Eraserhead met with some mixed reviews and a fairly small release. Word of mouth, by Lynch’s own admission, is what saved the film. John Waters was an early champion of the film and told people at an event he spoke at to go and see the film. Eraserhead ended up playing in Los Angeles and New York for years. By the time it was out of theaters, the film had made $7,000,000 on a budget of $100,000. It’s a return percentage that any production company would kill for.

Eraserhead is now in the National Film Registry and is regarded by film scholars as an important point in movie history. In the book length interview Lynch on Lynch edited by Chris Rodley, Lynch says that Eraserhead is the most perfect film he’s made. It’s clear that others in the industry agreed. Stanley Kubrick screened the film before the crew of The Shining in order to show them what sort of mood he wanted in the film. And then there’s Mel Brooks who came knocking on Lynch’s door, asking if he’d be interested in directing a film for him.

Next: Lynch rises high with The Elephant Man, falls hard with Dune, and comes back with the extraordinarily controversial Blue Velvet.


Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is donaldmccarthy.com.